’Picture brides’ in Hawaii backed Korea’s independence
This is the first in a series of articles on Korean emmigrants to shed new light on their role in helping Korea get where it is today. – ED.
By Kang Hyun-kyung
HONOLULU, Hawaii – Esther Kwon Arinaga’s mother arrived at Honolulu Harbor in October, 1912 to marry a Korean immigrant who initially left home for a sugar plantation job in Koloa, Kauai years earlier.
Then an 18-year old bride, Lee Hee-kyung had never met her 26 year-old husband Kwon Do-in before, seeing him only once in a black and white photo shown by a matchmaker.
Lee would probably have had no idea of how eventful her life would be in the forthcoming years: She became actively involved in Korea’s independence movement and was even imprisoned.
Citing her mother’s remarks while she was alive, Arinaga said the first leg of the journey was a short trip from the port city of Incheon to Japan where immigrants boarded a larger ship for Honolulu.
“From Japan to Honolulu, it was a 22-day ordeal from Kobe or Yokohama with people packed like cattle into a large cargo hold in which bunk beds were stacked three high,” she said.
“My mom, who passed away in 1943 after being hit by a truck, used to say that the smell of vomit permeated the ship.”
Arinaga’s mother was probably able to survive the ordeal because she had a clear motive.
Lee, a high school graduate, joined the picture brides group in the hope that she could go to college after marrying her husband-to-be.
But Lee’s life in Hawaii didn’t turn out the way she had planned. After having two daughters and two sons, Arinaga being the youngest, Lee had a lot to take care of.
Lee had to raise her children and took in sewing to make extra money because her husband did not earn enough to support the family.
Going to college was a distant dream.
Amid her busy life, Lee found a new mission in the foreign land ― raising money for independence fighters to help her home country achieve a break from Japan.
Lee, a Christian even before she arrived in Hawaii, was eager to be part of it.
“My mother became very active in women’s groups through the church. They have a church called the Korean Methodist Church here in Honolulu,” Arinaga, a retired lawyer, said.
“Everything in that period of time as you read in books or other publications was about independence. The church was like a social agency.”
Through the church, picture brides, including Lee, came to raise money to finance the independence movement at home.
They made money by selling rice cakes, kimchi and other dishes they made, and sent it back to independence activists in Korea and Shanghai.
Arinaga’s mother was very active in fundraising activities and contacted independence fighters to give them money on behalf of her church group.
“My mother wanted to save her country. She was a real independence worker. This is why the Korean government honored her and my dad,” Arinaga said.
“It’s hard to believe, but the ladies raised thousands of dollars from 1915 to 1945 by making and selling kimchi, rice cakes and side dishes and all kinds.”
One of the picture brides active in fundraising was quoted by Arinaga as saying that, “Sometimes when I look back on those days when we ladies were trying to help Korea, I think maybe we were a little crazy.
“Almost every family, even poor ones, gave money to help the independence movement. We loved Korea so much. We wanted her to be free, like America.”
In 1918, Lee headed back to her hometown of Daegu to carry out a high-stakes assignment.
“My mother carried money secretly into Korea to help the independence movement in Shanghai. My mother contacted independence movement people so she could give them the money to be sent to Shanghai,” Arinaga said.
“She went to prison for a little less than two years.”
The Japanese police were suspicious of Lee, believing she was a representative of a strong overseas branch for independence.
Their suspicion led Lee to serve longer than other independence fighters that joined the March 1 Movement in 1919.
“As my sister was four years old back then and went to Daegu with my mom, she stayed with grandmother in Korea. When my mother was there in Korea, she witnessed the March 1 independence movement.”
Arinaga, now 82, recalled her mom was a pioneer in every sense. “She was one of the first Korean women who drove a car here in Honolulu. She drove all her fellow picture brides,” she said.
Her father was also very supportive of Korea’s independence.
“My dad gave lots of money to support the independence movement,” Arinaga said.
“He was a very bright man. After leaving the sugar plantation, he came to Honolulu. At first he was a yard boy. He worked for a very wealthy man living in a certain part of Oahu.”
Arinaga said her father had business acumen.
“The owner allowed my father to grow vegetables. I don’t think my father knew a lot about growing vegetables. It was a way to make money on the side.
“He did that and then he came to eventually work in town. He got into a furniture business. From there he decided to bring in a picture bride.”
By the time Arinaga was born, her father opened his own business in Honolulu. He made beautiful furniture for wealthy people.
“My mother did sewing. By that time, many Korean immigrants bought land and property. By the mid-1930s, we had business in downtown Honolulu, and a nice home. My mother was always sad because she had never got to be educated in college. There was no time.”
The picture bride system
In the period between 1910 and 1924, a group of picture brides (estimates range from between 600 and 1,000) came to Hawaii via a port in Japan to marry Korean men working the sugar plantations there.
These young women believed there was no hope in their country after it was annexed to Japan in 1910.
Wayne Patterson, the author of “The Ilse: First-Generation Korean Immigrants in Hawaii (1903-1973),” said after bride and groom agreed on marriage after exchanging photos the groom paid the appropriate fees.
“The bride travels to Hawaii and is married at the immigration station to the man she has only seen in a photograph,” he said.
Citing one source, Patterson said it was the Methodist minister Min Chan-ho who first began to arrange the importation of the women in 1909.
“Another, more detailed, account suggests that the first picture bride arrived in Hawaii through the efforts of a woman named Paek Ye-soo from the northern Korean city of Wiju,” he said.
Arinaga offered a different account regarding who initiated the picture bride system in Hawaii.
A high-ranking Korean official passing through Honolulu in the early 1900s had observed the loneliness of the Korean bachelor workers who were spending their idle time drinking, gambling and smoking opium.
“At his suggestion the Korean government approved the emigration of young women who, after exchanging pictures with potential husbands, would agree to marry them upon their arrival in Honolulu,” Arinaga said.
To some brides, the first encounter with their husbands-to-be was a shock.
Some men sent photos taken years before they worked under the sun in sugar plantations. One bride was quoted by Arigana as saying that her heart sunk as the groom looked nothing like his picture.
“He was really old, old-looking. I was so disappointed. I cried for eight days and didn’t come out of my room. But I knew that if I didn’t get married, I had to go back to Korea on the next ship. So on the ninth day I came out and married him. But I didn’t talk to him for three months. Later on it was all right,” the unnamed picture bride was quoted as saying.
Patterson said most women were attracted by the wealth they believed awaited them in Hawaii. “More often than not, however, these hopes were wildly unrealistic,” he said.
But some, like Arinaga’s mother, decided to become a picture bride to seek a higher level of education such as degrees there.